08:00 AM

How to make your meetings meaningful

By Jeffrey Schoenberger, Affinity Consulting

You don’t have to be into politics or ceremonial occasions to have seen, understood, and enjoyed the Sen. Bernie Sanders photo and consequent memes from President Joe Biden’s inauguration. If none of those hit the spot, you can create your own of course.

One of my favorites is the photo of Sanders with the words “This could’ve been an email.” I don’t know whether the senator thought that about the eighth inauguration he could attend as a member of Congress, but I’ve certainly been to meetings that felt like they were worthy only of an email at best. I bet you have too.

Meaningful Meeting Building Blocks

Right Size and Right Participants: At Affinity, we have four types of formal, as opposed to impromptu, meetings. I’ve applied our model to examples for a legal organization:

  1. Staff meetings that everyone attends, which happen once a month and at which management and team leads give business updates;
  2. Team meetings attended by members of a team, such as corporate, litigation, or estate planning, where all team members give updates, share challenges and good news, and address team-wide issues;
  3. One-on-one meetings, usually 15-30 minutes long, between a team lead and an individual team member for discussions that don’t affect the whole team; and
  4. Client or project meetings, which are external between firm members and the client as part of a case or matter. These meetings vary in length from between 15 minutes to an hour.

The right size and right participants principle means you address the question with the smallest number of meeting participants necessary. You don’t address an individual or team issue at a company-wide meeting. Team meetings and one-on-ones are the venue for that. A project team wants to have its ducks in a row and fix miscommunications outside of the client’s view when possible. Don’t take time out of five people’s day when two people can handle the question. Our exception to these guidelines is that good news can always flow upstream. Who doesn’t like more good news? Good news aside, the best way I’ve found to summarize this principle is that most meetings should have participants and few to no mere attendees.

Meetings are for Making Decisions: Whatever “background information” is a necessary basis for the meeting’s topic should be distributed in advance so participants come to the meeting ready to discuss and decide. The volume of what’s distributed could vary greatly depending on the subject. Maybe you want to hold a meeting about recruiting more clients. I suggest the pre-reading available should include what the firm does now to recruit clients, what those efforts cost, and how successful they've been. People do the pre-reading and come to the meeting prepared to decide on a strategy for the months ahead.

The objection I hear to this approach is people don’t make time to do the pre-reading. No doubt! My response to that is to suggest Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ approach to meetings. The first 30 minutes of each meeting is “study hall” time for participants to complete the pre-reading. That way no one tries to bluff his way through or asks questions preparation would answer.

Even if you invite folks to a “blue sky” brainstorming session, don’t just book a calendar appointment for “brainstorming;” give participants context. I had a college professor who, when handing out the weekly essay prompts, said, “Even if you’re not going to begin writing until the night before it’s due, read the prompts immediately because your mind works on questions without you being aware of it.” I did as he said, and it seemed to work. I have continued to do so ever since. So, don’t schedule a “brainstorming” meeting, but instead a “brainstorming meeting on estate planning services to offer people transitioning from homes or independent living to congregant or assisted living.”

Everyone has Something Else to Do: This is true even of the meeting host or organizer. Run a tight ship. Be respectful of everyone and start your meeting on time. And, more importantly, end the meeting on time come hell or high water. We’re all busy, often booked back-to-back. One or more people have given you the gift of their time. Make good use of it.

What Shall We Talk About: A meeting without an agenda is like cooking without a recipe or driving without a destination. Serendipity may bless your endeavor, but the odds makers bet against you. There’s no need for a detailed plan but telling folks in advance what’s going to be discussed and what questions or problems you expect to resolve helps participants frame their own thinking.

Who Said That: A corollary to points two and four above is that a meaningful meeting should have a scribe or secretary whose responsibility is to record what the group discussed, what decisions the group made, and who agreed to do something and date by which that person updates the group or relevant people. Shortly after the meeting, the scribe sends around notes of the meeting. Remember that a meetings purpose isn’t a gripe session or happy hour; it’s to produce a concrete positive effect.

Possible Perilous Pitfalls

Few meetings will be perfect and many might not satisfy all the meaningful meeting building blocks above. The goal is to make each meeting you can influence at least a little better than the previous one with same participants.

Getting off the starting line is the biggest challenge, but you will encounter hiccups along the way:

Tech Roulette: You’re most likely to encounter this issue with clients or other external participants. Many comparable digital meeting platforms exist: Zoom, Teams, GoToMeeting, Webex, and so forth. If you don’t have a platform, check out the Web Meeting Service Comparison Chart for top vendors in this field.

Irrespective of your platform choice, clients, colleagues, and courts will be using one or more of the alternatives. If your client base tends toward individuals and families, they’re probably most comfortable with Zoom. With businesses it could be Teams, Webex, or Zoom. With courts, I’ve seen Zoom and WebEx. In any event, we’re unlikely to return to plain, vanilla conference calls. The less technologically sophisticated your client is, the more time you’ll lose to tech issues at a meeting’s start. Take that into account when planning and scheduling meetings.

Practice Makes Perfect: I think it was Jack Newton, CEO of legal technology company Clio’s, who commented that COVID compressed five to 10 years of legal tech changes into a few weeks of 2020. If you were a technophobe or tech-naive attorney, you had to figure out webcams, audio, screen sharing and all the rest. You’re better at it today than you were months ago. If you have team members who conduct virtual meetings with clients, make sure they are equipped with the necessary web meeting technology and know how to use it effectively. I encounter many paralegals and legal assistants who meet with clients but lack the audio and video tech to easily participate in web meetings. Make sure people representing your firm to the world do so professionally, just as you would want for in-person meetings.

Quick Tips

Finally, here are some quick tips to encourage everyone’s involvement and best ideas:

  • Offer feedback with respect and the intention to help;
  • Receive feedback without debate;
  • Choose clarifying questions over defensive statements;
  • No redundant comments: “I agree with...” or “Like Sally said…”;
  • Respect one another;
  • Pay attention and engage; and
  • One person speaks at a time.

For more resources on opening, building, managing, protecting, and winding down a law practice, visit the The Missouri Bars’ Law Practice Management Resource Center. If you have any questions or want information from experts who’ve implemented these solutions in law practices and legal organizations, visit the Ask an Expert page to email questions or schedule a phone or video call.